The Museum of Nice Players

OK, it has been a little while since I’ve done kind of a weird baseball post, so let’s try one here. I woke up the other morning with the number 19 on my mind, no idea why. Maybe it was an homage to Bernie Kosar or Bob Feller or the Paul Hardcastle song or magic hexagons. Whatever, I started thinking: "I wonder who the 19th best player at every position."

I do realize, yes, that every time I write what I’m thinking I reveal myself as more of a loon.

But that was my thought: Who is the 19th best third baseman? The 19th best right fielder? And so on. Bill James in his New Historical Abstract ranked the Top 100 players at every position but, believe it or not, he wrote that 15 years ago. Still he was my starting point. It was while flipping through That realized that I'm not actually interested in the 19th ranked player at every position. What I want to find is the best player at every position who is unanimously* NOT considered a Hall of Famer.

*More or less -- nothing is really unanimous. Heck, you would think we would all unanimously agree to never, ever intentionally walk Ryan Howard. But Washington's Matt Williams did it anyway.

We all know about the Hall of Very Good. I'm looking for something that feeds off that, something I call the "Museum of the Nice Player."

Does that make sense? What is a Nice Player? Well, let's start with the shortstop spot. Bill James had Maury Wills as the 19th best shortstop. Wills is not in the Hall of Fame. That would seem to be the kind of player I'm talking about ... but it isn't. Many, many people think Wills belongs in the Hall of Fame; columnist after columnist has written the angry “How can Maury Wills not be in the Hall?” column. So he isn't exactly what I'm looking for here.

Bill had Johnny Pesky at No. 20; Pesky is also not in the Hall of Fame but he too has a pretty vocal Hall of Fame lobby. Bill Dahlen is No. 21; there are some who consider him the best player from his era not in the Hall of Fame. So I have to keep going.

You will notice that all my Museum of the Nice Player inductees are from the last 40 years or so. I think this is because before 1960, many of the Nice Player candidates have been elected to the real Hall of Fame. Bill Mazeroski would have been a good choice, but he's in Cooperstown (and, to be fair, he probably had too much Hall of Fame support from fans anyway).

Anyway, here we go:

Catcher: Darrell Porter

Darrell Porter was one of those remarkable athletes who could do everything spectacularly well. He was a three-sport star in high school, and he signed a letter-of-intent to play quarterback at Oklahoma. He only changed his mind when Milwaukee drafted him fourth in the 1979 amateur draft and offered him what they called “an undisclosed but substantial bonus." Porter hit a home run the first time he swung the bat in the minor leagues.

He hit 16 homers as a rookie in the big leagues, and he was an all-star his second year, but his early seasons largely were disappointments. Rumors quickly spread about late nights and drunken stupors and drug episodes. The Brewers traded him to Kansas City before the 1977 season, much to Porter’s fury. He angrily blamed manager Alex Grammas for giving up on him, and he called Milwaukee a loser organization. Grammas responded: “It’s just pitiful. It’s not only he was so bad hitting, but defensively he hurt us worse.” Several Brewers also ripped Porter after he was traded; pitcher Bill Travers said Porter would sometimes not even pay attention during games.

Maybe the change of scenery theme we talk about so often in sports is largely a myth ... but no one could argue that everything changed for Darrell Porter as a player after he got to Kansas City. While he and Grammas were at each other's throats, Porter found a father figure in Kansas City manager Whitey Herzog. While in Milwaukee his effort and commitment were constantly question. In Kansas City, his teammate George Brett would say, he played every game “like it was the seventh game of the World Series.”

In four years with the Royals, Porter hit .271/.375/.435, played solid catcher and was one of the key players in the Royals’ ascension. The team made the playoffs three of those four years and went to the World Series in 1980. In 1979, Porter had one of the great seasons ever for a catcher, hitting .291/.421/.484, scoring and driving in 100 runs, leading the league with 121 walks and playing superb defense. On the surface, all seemed to be coming together for an All-American boy.

But it wasn't like that at all. By 1979, Porter was a full-fledged drug addict, barely able to function in social situations. He would write in his book “Snap Me Perfect” that he treated people terribly, was unreliable in every way and once beat up a man for no reason he could remember. That winter he sat at home with a shotgun in case commissioner Bowie Kuhn burst into his home. He would write that he felt utterly dead inside, unable to feel joy or sorrow or anything else other than a hopeless fear. The brilliant talent he had for playing baseball was the only thing keeping him going.

In 1980, he checked into a rehab center and soon said that he had been born again. At the end of that year, he became a free agent. Few teams wanted him; those rumors about alcohol and drug abuse were again raging. But there was one man who never stopped believing in Porter, and Whitey Herzog had gone to manage the Cardinals. “I think Darrell Porter is one of the best people I’ve ever known,” he told reporters. “I’m not the least bit worried about him. He’s one of the greatest catchers around and certainly one of the finest human beings I’ve ever known.”

At first, nobody really understood why Herzog would want Porter. The Cardinals had an overload of catchers then. They had Ted Simmons – who is not on this Nice Player list only because many consider him a Hall of Famer – and they had the young Terry Kennedy (who would become a Nice Player himself). The signing seemed loopy. But Whitey Herzog had his own plan. In his mind, Simmons' defense had disintegrated to the point where he could no longer be the team's catcher. When Simmons made it clear he wasn't playing first base (and the Cardinals already had a first baseman named Keith Hernandez), Simmons was traded to Milwaukee. As for Terry Kennedy, yes, he showed showed promise, but Herzog wasn’t interested in promise. Herzog was interested in winning right away. Kennedy (and another catcher, Steve Swisher) was traded to San Diego. Darrell Porter was left standing.

Porter wasn’t as good in St. Louis as he had been in Kansas City, but he was good enough to start and hit in the middle of the lineup for a 1982 Cardinals that won the World Series. He turned on in the playoffs that year, winning the NLCS and World Series MVP Awards. He then had his best St. Louis season in 1983, when he hit 15 homers and had a 119 OPS+. After that he declined quickly as catchers often do.

In all, Porter had eight or nine good seasons and one MVP-type year. Hall of Fame? No. But there are not many catchers who have had that kind of career. The story ended sadly for Darrell Porter. He did try to kick his addictions. He was very involved in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and he would speak about the difficulties of overcoming drugs. Tragically, he did not overcome. He died at age 50 of the toxic effects of cocaine.

* * *

First base: Mark Grace

I originally had John Olerud in this spot because, believe it or not, Grace got significantly more Hall of Fame support than Olerud did. Grace got 22 votes -- he almost got the necessary 5% to stay on the ballot. Olerud, meanwhile, got just four votes. But, I have determined that as time goes on some people WILL make the Hall of Fame case for Olerud. He really did have a borderline Hall of Fame career. Grace did not. Grace is, I believe, the epitome of the Nice Player.

My favorite Mark Grace story actually does not have Mark Grace as the central character. In 1990, I was the junior beat writer for the Charlotte Knights, then the Class AA minor league team for the Chicago Cubs. You will ask: What is a "junior beat writer" for a minor league team? Answer: It's exactly what it sounds like.

Anyway, I had many great moments as the team's junior beat writer. I once had Billy Williams teach me the difference between a slider and a curveball. I once unintentionally insulted former N.C. State basketball star and current superb announcer Terry Gannon. And, after they built a new baseball stadium in Fort Mill, I went out for the big ceremony where the team's owner George Shinn, the town's mayor, various politicians all put on hard hats and pretended to be construction workers as the first seats were installed. My paragraph on the subject is still remembered as a classic of journalism. It is, I suspect, taught in classrooms across America.

And this was a chance for Knights people -- all wearing hard hats, of course -- to boast about what they say will be one of the finest minor-league facilities in the country. It was also a chance for Shinn, among others, to ceremoniously screw in the first two seats of the stadium.

Um .. yeah. The line break was just like that too, like putting "ceremoniously" and "screw" together was not enough comedy. It really is a mystery why an editor, after that happened, did not just state the obvious and say that journalism was probably not for me. But I digress.

One night we were up in the press box and Jimmy Piersall of "Fear Strikes Out" fame was there too; he was some sort of roving instructor for the Cubs. I actually saw Piersall quite a bit in those days. He was, to put it mildly, kind of excitable.

Anyway, the senior beat writer, Stan Olson, and I were talking about Mark Grace – I can’t remember if I had Grace on my fantasy team or stan did, but I believe that was the point of our conversation. At the time, Grace was hitting pretty lousy and, more importantly, he had hit one home run all year. Stan, who called his fantasy team "The Olyboppers" and listed the home run as one of the five greatest things in life, had no use for this power outage.

So Stan says, “Hey, let’s ask Piersall.” And Stan does. He says, “Jimmy, what’s wrong with Mark Grace?”

You’ve heard the “What do I think of Kingman’s performance?" rant from Tommy Lasorda, right? OK, put that rant in your mind. Now double it. Piersall went on a fantastic tirade about sportswriters and incompetence and never-playing-the-game and how Mark Grace had hit THREE BLEEPING FOURTEEN LAST YEAR … THREE BLEEPING FOURTEEN … WHAT DO YOU BLEEPING BLEEP BLEEPERS THINK YOU WOULD HIT IF YOU WERE IN THE MAJOR LEAGUES?

At which point, the official scorer – a fantastic guy and local high school coaching legend named Ed Walton – piped up and said: “Oh about .350.”

Vesuvias knew not the rage of Piersall.

* * *

Second base: Chuck Knoblauch

He will be remembered, if at all, for the throwing horrors that haunted him, the generally unhappy role he played as the least-favorite Beatle of those great New York Yankees team and the sad turns his life have taken since retirement.

But for a four- or five-year period there, he was essentially as good as Craig Biggio or Robbie Alomar at their best. He led the American League in doubles in 1994 and in triples in 1996. For a four year stretch, 1994-1997, Biggio hit .319, slugged .468, and averaged 112 runs and 47 stolen bases per season. He was only a slightly lesser player in the three or four years surrounding those, making him a superb, Hall of Fame caliber second baseman from 1991 (when he won the Rookie of the Year award) to around 1999 (his second year with the Yankees).

Knoblauch’s life went off the rails after that. He had those terrible throwing problems. He was specifically named in the Mitchell Report. In retirement, he has had numerous legal problems, including horrific charges of domestic abuse. He has given little reason to remember him fondly. But it is still true that for a time there, he was not only a terrific baseball player but was in his own way an admirable baseball player, one of the rare players who hustles and thinks and does everything well. Baseball, though, isn't life.

* * *

Shortstop: Jim Fregosi

Funny thing: I have no memory of Jim Fregosi as a player, only as a manager. I mean NO memory. This is odd because he did play throughout my childhood, yet I never remember getting a Jim Fregosi baseball card, never remember reading about him, never recall seeing him play. After he became manager of the Angels in 1978, I do remember thinking:

1. Who is that guy?

2. His last name is fun to say! Fregosi!

Well, Fregosi was one helluva player from 1963 to 1970. That was a bit before my time, but I still should have heard about him. Fregosi played at an MVP level in 1964, 1965 and 1970. He was a good defensive shortstop who hit with some power. A lot of this is obscured by the time when he played (the 1960s, the great pitching decade) and the ballparks where he played (he played his early years at Dodger Stadium when it was a hitting wasteland, then moved to Anaheim, which wasn’t much better).

In 1964, for instance, he hit .277 with 18 homers, 86 runs and 72 RBIs. Nice. Not thrilling. But nice.

Neutralized? Those number are suddenly .302/.397/.504 with 20 homers, 10 triples, 87 RBIs, 103 runs scored. That's a great year.

In 1967, he hit a career high .290. Neutralized that jumps up to .320. The next year, he led the league with 13 triples and scored 77 runs. Neutralized, that’s 16 triples and 105 runs.

One of the quirks of baseball is that the game ebbs and flows – pitching dominates, then hitting dominates, then pitching dominates, then speed dominates, then power dominates on and on – but the statistical benchmarks we use to quantify players generally stays the same. So players are regularly overrated or underrated based entirely on their circumstances. It's likely that Jim Fregosi himself didn’t fully appreciate just how good a player he was in his time.

* * *

Third base: Buddy Bell

A few weeks ago, while working on an upcoming story on Felix Hernandez, I got to spend 20 or 30 minutes with Seattle's pitching coach Rick Waits, an old hero of mine from my childhood Cleveland Indians. I would say Waits was probably the seventh player from my childhood Cleveland teams that I have interviewed at some length:

They are:

1. Duane Kuiper, of course. 2. Rick Waits. 3. Rick Manning 4. Andre Thornton 5. Wayne Garland 6. Mike Hargrove 7. Buddy Bell

Here’s the point: Every single one of those guys was delightful. They were not just superficially friendly or pleasant; they were all terrific beyond the normal boundaries of interviewer-subject. They all gave me much more time than I asked for and they all were open with their thoughts and memories, all very kind. Those 1970s Cleveland teams were pretty bad. But I remain more convinced than ever that I was lucky to grow up with them.

Buddy Bell was essentially the iPad mini version of Brooks Robinson. They were both 6-foot-1, 180 pounds, right-handed third baseman who were magicians with the glove, solid with the bat and class acts on and off the field.

-- Robinson was the best defensive third baseman in baseball history; Bell was one of the 10 best.

-- Robinson won the MVP award in 1964 when he hit .317 with 28 homers and 118 RBIs. In Bell’s best year, he hit .299 with 18 homers and 101 RBIs and he finished 10th in the MVP voting.

-- Bell’s offensive rate numbers over the career are actually better than Robinson’s (higher batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage) but Robinson’s career length means he has a three hundred or so more hits, a couple hundred more RBIs and so on.

-- Robinson was a 15-time All-Star (not counting the years where there were two All-Star Games) and he got almost 12,000 plate appearances in his long career. Bell was a 5-time All-Star who got just a touch more than 10,000 plate appearances.

Brooks Robinson was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year with 92 percent of the vote. Buddy Bell fell off the ballot after receiving just eight votes his one year on the ballot. I guess that's how it should be, but it just shows you how small the difference can be between an all-time legend and a Nice Player.

***

Left field: Brian Downing

There have been few baseball success stories quite like Brian Downing's. We are talking about a player who was cut from his high school team and then cut from Cypress College. He obviously wasn’t drafted. He just showed up at a Chicago White Sox tryout and played well enough to convince the Sox to give him a few bucks and send him to Sarasota. He went to the rookie ball and hit a whopping .219 with no home runs in 34 games. The next year, he went to Appleton and hit .246 with three homers.

But there was something about Downing that was irresistible. The guy was relentless and willing to do anything to play ball. Anything. He’d play catcher, outfield, third base, wherever they wanted. He showed discipline at the plate, ran out everything, and in Class AA he had a nice year, hitting .278 with seven triples and 15 homers. The next year, he made his big league debut. That, alone, was something of a miracle.

And the result of this miracle? On the very first play of his major league career, Dick McAuliffe hit a foul popup down the third base line. Downing chased it down, made a sliding catch, slid into the dugout, tore up his knee and did not play again two and a half months.

Setbacks? Yeah. There were setbacks. Downing’s first full year was 1975, and he was a pretty useful catcher. He only hit .240, but he did a few other things well. He walked a bunch, stole a few bases, played pretty good defense as a catcher. But he did hit just .240 and that was more or less what mattered then; the fans apparently gave him a pretty hard time. In late 1977, he was traded to California, where he hit just .255 with no power. He was 28 year old at the end of that season. The career seemed to be winding to an end.

And then … Brian Downing had one of the most remarkable transformations in baseball history. He began to work out intensely -- he completely reshaped his body long before the 1990s workout and supplement rage -- and he completely changed his batting stance. It was a wild batting stance, remember? That stance was so open, he looked like he was preparing to bow before the queen.

Well, he had a fantastic year. He hit .326/.418/.462, scored 87 runs in 130 games. The Angels won the division that year and his teammate Don Baylor won the MVP award. Realistically, the award probably should have gone to Fred Lynn, who hit .333/.423/..637, but if they were going to give it to someone on the Angels, Downing was probably as good a candidate as Baylor or Bobby Grich or anyone else on the team.

He dealt with injury problems in 1980 and the strike in 1981, but starting in 1982 Downing became a consistent run producer who posted a 115 OPS+ or better for 11 straight years. He never hit 30 homers in a season, but he hit 19 or more seven times. He never drove in 100 RBIs, but he did have 90-plus twice and 80-plus two other times. His biggest offensive year was probably 1982, when he had 300 total bases, but he was always productive and by the end he had 2,000 hits, 1,000 RBIs, almost 1,200 runs and more walks than strikeouts.

It was a marvelous career for a man who was cut from his college baseball team, and though he’s not a Hall of Famer it’s unlikely that anyone in the Hall of Fame came closer to maximizing the baseball gifts they were given.

* * *

Center field: Cesar Cedeno

Brian Downing's story is one of overachieving, Cesar Cedeno's story is very different. By the time Cedeno turned 19, people regularly were comparing him to Willie Mays. When he was 22, Leo Durocher -- who had been there when Mays began -- said Cedeno was BETTER than Mays at the same age. Shortly before Roberto Clemente died, the columnist Milton Richman asked him if there was any player in baseball who reminded him of himself. Clemente, without hesitation, said one word: “Cedeno.”

Cedeno led the league in doubles at age 20. At 21, he had a near miraculous season – he hit .320/.384/.537 with 39 doubles (again he led the league) and 22 homers, he stole 55 bases, he scored 103 runs, and he won the Gold Glove. What made this nearly miraculous was that he played half his games in the cavernous and dim Astrodome; on the road he hit .329 and slugged .560.

In 1973, if you simply doubled his road numbers, he would have hit .346/.391/.618 with 32 homers and 46 stolen bases. The Astrodome dampened his stats so that they looked almost identical to the numbers he put up the year before. That's still a fantastic season.

But late that fall, Cedeno was involved in a tragic and confusing incident. He checked into a hotel in the Dominican Republic with a 19-year-old girl. Details were pretty sketchy. The two definitely were drinking and there was a gun. Police would conclude that the two were wrestling for the gun – perhaps just as some sort of a game – and it went off. The woman was shot and killed. Cedeno called the police, turned himself in and was eventually charged with involuntary manslaughter.

From a legal perspective, he was immediately cleared to play baseball -- he spent just 20 days in jail. And Cedeno did play for another 13 seasons. But he was never again the same player.

Oh, he was still a very good player for a while. In 1974, he had career highs in homers (26), RBIs (102) and he stole 57 bases ... but his rate stats plummeted. He had injuries in 1975, won his last Gold Glove in 1976 and played 140 games in a season for the last time in 1977. He was just 26 years old and the rest of his career was spent bouncing around just trying to stay healthy and get in the lineup.

He was a sensitive man even before the gun went off in the hotel room that night. “So much, so soon,” he sad sadly to Richman in an interview as a rookie. After the incident, the taunting from the crowd was often merciless and he could not handle it. In 1981 he went into the crowd after a fan. By then his sure Hall of Fame career had disintegrated and the Astros traded him to Cincinnati.

Cedeno did have one last flash of genius. In late 1985, the St. Louis Cardinals were trying desperately to hold off a suddenly powerful New York Mets team. They sent a minor leaguer to Cincinnati for a shot Cedeno; it was one of those desperation moves that contending teams sometimes do. Cedeno was hitting .241 with no power at the time.

Well, Cedeno homered in his first game. He doubled in his second. On September 5th, he went 3 for 4, and the next day he hit a grand slam. And he just kept on hitting. On September 15, he went 5 for 5 with another homer. From September 11-24, the Cardinals went 12-2 and Cedeno hit better than .500 and slugged .800.

In all Cedeno hit .434 for the Cardinals and they won the pennant. And that’s where the glory ended. Cedeno did not hit at all in the postseason, the Cardinals did not bring him back, and he signed with the Dodgers. In his last big-league game, Cedeno drew a walk, stole a base, took third on the throw and scored on a single. In his last at-bat, he grounded out to second … two innings later he was lifted for a pinch-hitter.

* * *

Right field: Jesse Barfield

Wow was Jesse Barfield a good player in 1985 and 1986. He did more or less everything in those years. In 1985, he had 70 extra base hits, stole 22 bases, won a Gold Glove and threw out 22 base runners even though by then everyone knew that he had the most glorious arm. The next year, he was even better – he hit 40 homers, drove in 108 RBIs, scored 107 runs, had 20 more base runner kills.

He was a good player in the years around those, but for those two years he was spectacular.

* * *

Pitcher: Mark Langston

How exactly does a pitcher start winning Gold Glove awards? Between 1987 and 1995, Mark Langston won eight Gold Gloves. The only defensive statistic anyone looked at in those days was fielding percentage, and Langston did not have an exceptional fielding percentage. He made about as many errors as the average pitcher, maybe even a couple more. His range factor, if anyone bothered to look, was generally around or even below average – in his later years, it picked up.

I suspect Langston kept winning Gold Gloves because he WAS a good fielder and, more to the point, he had a wonderful grace about him. He came up as a fireballing lefty who led the league in strikeouts three of his first four years. He maintained the juice in his fastball for a good while – at age 32 he still struck out 196.

Like many power pitchers, he was hard to hit, a bit wild and home run prone. But there was nothing jerky or awkward about his power; he was smooth and easy and beautiful to watch. His pickoff move was gorgeous, a perfect little thing that just froze base runners. Langston picked off 91 base runners, fourth all-time. His game was power but his style was light and graceful.

Langston never won 20 in a season, but his teams won 20 of his starts in four different seasons – if you can unravel that sentence you can understand the mysteries of pitching statistics. Langston played for mostly lousy teams, and he did not get to pitch in the postseason until he was 37. He never started a postseason game.

That was just his fate. In 1990, Langston, Jim Abbott and Chuck Finley formed a pretty remarkable trio of lefty starters – Abbott and Finley both got Cy Young votes. But those Angels couldn’t score runs and so they went 81-81.